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Triangle: The Fire That Changed America

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On the afternoon of March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the 10-floor Asch Building, a block east of Manhattan's Washington Square. This is where 500 mostly young immigrant girls were producing shirts for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Within minutes, it spread to consume the building's upper three stories. Firemen at the scene were unable to rescue those trapped inside: their ladders weren't tall enough. Exits were locked, and the narrow fire escapes were inadequate. Panicked, many jumped from the windows to their deaths. People on the street watched in horror. The flames were under control in less than a half hour, but 146 people perished, 123 of them women. It was the worst disaster in the city's history.

Von Drehle's wide-angle approach allows him to portray the social, economic and political dynamics of pre-World War I New York. The story of the fire only begins to emerge halfway through his book.

In the first chapter, "Spirit of the Age," we are typically spared theories about the class struggle and its interaction with the rapidly increasing feminist movement.

Instead, we watch these forces at work on the streets of the Lower East Side as Von Drehle focuses on a common criminal, Lawrence Ferrone, a.k.a. Charley Rose. He was hired on September 10, 1909 to beat up Clara Lemlich, an eloquent, fearless garment worker leading a strike at a blouse factory. She had arrived from Ukraine six years earlier, acquired skills as a draper, and joined the fledgling International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. Rose and a few of his buddies imposed a savage beating on the five-foot, baby-faced Clara. The police stood by, reckoning such assaults as usual. The fix was already in with Tammany Hall, the clique of neighbor...

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...s Triangle. The Fire That Changed America is an amazing example of history and story telling at its very best. I enjoyed his smooth writing style and his feel for detail. Soon, I start caring about the people of Triangle Shirtwaist factory, as I saw what brought them to America and what they tolerated once they got here. Most impressive, was Von Drehle's minute-by-minute, sometimes second-by-second explanation of the fire itself and the desperate efforts to escape it. You'll find yourself in the building with the people, thinking along with them about what to do as the flames draw closer.

David Von Drehle's Triangle. The Fire That Changed America. is a Secondary source. He is a Washington Post reporter and co-author of "Deadlock: The Inside Story of America's Closest Election." He is also the author of Among the Lowest of the Dead: Inside Death Row.
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